Since yesterday's game wasn't televised and took place during the workday, my guess is that most fans didn't get a chance to see the action and ended up piecing together information about the 6-5 victory through the box score. A cursory look at the stat sheet indicates that Scott Baker once again hit a wall after pitching several strong innings; this time, Baker held the Tigers scoreless while facing the minimum over the first five innings before getting tagged for five runs in the sixth. Yet, a deeper glance at what actually took place gives us another lesson in the importance of defense.
With two outs in the sixth inning, Baker was facing Ramon Santiago with two runners on. Santiago hit a seemingly catchable line drive toward left field; Jason Kubel gave chase but watched the ball bounce over the wall for an RBI ground-rule double. The Tigers proceeded to rally for four more runs in the inning, and Baker's once-promising outing ended after six innings. The Twins' ostensible No. 1 starter failed to put a dent in his inflated ERA.
Had Carlos Gomez been starting in center, Denard Span would have been in left and would have almost certainly caught Santiago's line drive. The inning would have been over, the game still would have been tied 0-0, and Baker would have still been pitching in the seventh, keeping pressure off a beleaguered bullpen.
While Baker certainly deserves his fair share of blame for surrendering a deep ball to the gap off the bat of Santiago, the fact of the matter is that he -- like many other members of this pitching staff -- is a fly ball pitcher. Pitchers like Baker, Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins are routinely going to give up a number of fly balls and line drives into the outfield gaps, even when they're going good. Having a pair of fantastic defensive outfielders like Gomez and Span to play behind pitchers like these is a blessing, but one that the Twins continually waste by benching Gomez and playing Span in center field, where he is not nearly as valuable.
That the Twins were able to come back and win yesterday thanks to a second straight impressive effort from what is proving to be an extremely resurgent offense does not change the fact that substandard fielding cost the Twins five runs and nearly a ballgame. When Aaron Gleeman suggested earlier this week that the outfield alignment of Span and Gomez would save as many as 80 runs over the Young/Span duo according to Ultimate Zone Rating, many scoffed at the sheer ridiculousness of the figure. And maybe it is an exaggeration. Yet, seeing an extra five runs score in one game because of an avoidable misplay in the outfield makes the number seem a little less absurd. Take into account the extra strain that the non-catch put on Baker, the bullpen and the team at large, and you'll have some idea as to why I feel so adamant about the importance of fielding a strong defensive alignment in the outfield.
I realize I'm probably beating a dead horse here, but to me, Gardenhire's handling of the outfield situation is the preeminent issue with this club right now. Between that (assuming it Gardy's decision, and not Bill Smith's), his unwillingness to play Brendan Harris on a regular basis and his stringent adherence to using Joe Nathan only in the ninth inning, Gardenhire is doing an awful lot to hurt this team right now. The Twins finally lifted themselves above the .500 mark with yesterday's win, but they can't count on miracle comebacks forever. Unless Gardenhire starts making some smarter choices, this team will have an extremely tough time maintaining their spot atop the AL Central.